31 May 2009

Sunday Sermon

I recently finished reading "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" by Christopher Hitchens. Although I obtained my copy from the public library, it is widely available in bookstores and recently came out in paperback. I've always enjoyed reading Hitchens' works and listening to him on radio and television. He is a throwback in some ways, a crumudgeonly anti-establishment ex-Trotskyite Englishman (now American citizen) who speaks for the oppressed and downtrodden regardless of who is doing the oppressing at the time. I've always liked him because he skewers both the Left and Right with equal abandon.

In "God Is Not Great" Hitchens takes the matter of religion head-on arguing that it is a sham created by man to oppress and control the masses. He bases his argument on an equal examination of Islam, Christianity and Judaism with some other cults thrown in for good measure. He methodically examines the basis of the writings of these religions, their interpretation and the countless lives lost due to them. Hitchens' goes as far as to argue that introducing children to religion at a young age is tantamount to child abuse. Although it seems light on evidence and rushed at times, I liked the book and would recommend it to both believers and non-believers alike.

I was raised as a Presbyterian in a generally religion free family. Church was a once or twice a year trip based around holidays and beyond a period of study for the confirmation process, I can say that my upbringing was generally devoid of any great spiritual message. That being said, I was encouraged to do a great deal of reading on the subject, on the history of the church and the scriptures themselves. I always enjoyed discussing the subject with my father as we asked each other questions on subjects such as the formation of the universe, who created God, the apocalypse and the meaning of life. Despite the fact that I never attended church regularly, I found that I was better acquainted with the bible, and the history behind it, than many others that went every Sunday.

My belief in the Theravada school of Buddhism was a slow and gradual process based upon study and reflection upon the Christian beliefs with which I was raised. Old gnawing doubts about Christianity arose and were reinforced by the actions of others that I considered to be devout Christians. If Hell really exists, for example, how could a devout Christian who attended church every week and ate dinner with her priest a couple of times per month steal money from my company ? If Hell was real, and some absolute punishment awaited her in the afterlife, how could she reconcile that with her actions which violated a Commandment and destroyed my life ?

A more recent reinforcement of this line of reasoning was confirmed by the governmental report on the horrifying, and long-term, abuse of children at the hands of religious orders in Ireland. If God is real, and he is all-seeing and all-knowing, and eternal hell awaits those that commit such terrible crimes, how could these people (especially as priests who are supposed to really believe this stuff) commit thousands of acts of child abuse including rape ? How could a religious institution not only cover up their crimes but transfer them to new areas so they could begin their perversions anew ? Incidentally, if you have the time, and the stomach, you can read the report for yourself here.

I was attracted to Buddhism because of its lack of proselytizing and the Buddha's message that everything he said should be challenged and debated- quite different from the absolute authoritarian positions of the three great monotheistic faiths. Buddhism, at least in the original conservative Theravada school, can also be better described as a philosophy rather than a religion. The Buddha rejected all talk that he was a deity or possessed any supernatural powers- he was simply a man with a new way to ponder the mysteries of the mind and to bring a new system of ethics for us to examine. He really didn't care if we debated these ideas, embraced them or rejected them. Indeed, I am still not completely sold on the Buddhist philosophy and have major disagreements with the concept of reincarnation which cannot be proven empirically. I am free to examine this issue further, however, without the judgment of a Priest, Rabbi or Imman.

As someone who has sought shelter in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, I am always open to discuss my beliefs with friends and family. I am amused, but not surprised, by the reaction of others when I tell them that I am a Buddhist (especially by fundamentalist Christians.) Far from taking a step back and examining their beliefs from all sides, I have found fundamentalists deaf to any discussion of their faith and validity of mine. The lack of knowledge regarding Buddhism, and many other beliefs, is a testament to the public educational system of our country. I sometimes think that if I was a Satanist, my Christian friends would at least know what I'm talking about.

As a heathen Buddhist, I have found out that I am damned to hell, but those who are born again are on the fast-track to paradise. While they attack Buddhism as one hand, they refuse to examine the evidence regarding who wrote the old and new testaments, the contradictions in some of the stories and the process by which the so-called word of God was handed down through history. Otherwise intelligent people would would closely analyze the difference in cell phone plans seem completely willing to believe the Christian story hook, line and sinker.

Faith is a personal issue which I respect to a point. As long as it stays out of the public and political arena, I believe that we all can believe to worship, or not-worship, in our own way. The frightening thing to me, and one of the factors that drove me away from both Christianity and the Republican Party, was the rise of the Christian Right and its battle for dominance of the Republican message. There is a very thin line between a supposed republic and a theocracy and I fear that we are taking the first tentative step across it.

The other problem that I have with some aspects of religion, like Hitchens, is how it is impressed upon our children through a process of indoctrination. Rather than allowing children to grow up with a wide education in varying faiths and philosophies, they are taught a very narrow view of the world and shown that anyone outside of these views is wrong and worth of contempt. At best, this creates arrogance and feelings of supremacy. At worst, it convinces children to strap their chests with explosives.


  1. I haven't had much time to do the primary reading lately, but what I have heard from Hitchens and Dawkins ("Darwin's Rottweiler") sounds about right. Dawkins espouses a "naturalistic" world view in which all of our experiences can be explained in terms of mundane causes and physical rules. In college we read excerpts of his book "The Blind Watchmaker" on evolution. He also wrote the 1976 book "The Selfish Gene."

    A life in the sciences has made me a Doubting Thomas on good days. On bad days I come out about where Hitchens is. In New York we went to Quaker meetings, which are pretty interesting. No central figure, no ritual, no scripture, often no words said at all. If one is moved by "the light" to speak, then one speaks. In New York in the early 2000's people spoke of the war in Iraq much of the time. But many weeks went the full hour in contemplative silence in the presence of 30-50 other "friends."

    My brother-in-law Jeff has been interested in Buddhism for years, Zen among other kinds. He occasionally goes to monastic weekend retreats. I'm pretty sure I couldn't handle the rigid sitting required.

    Here in Seattle we go to a Presbyterian church of about 100 members. The main draw is a minister/pastor whose sermons we enjoy. We baptized the kids there, but I don't anticipate an oppressively religious upbringing for them. Just enough to give them a little context for understanding that part of their local culture. My feeling lately is that religion can be positive insofar as it promotes intra- and inter-community bonds of friendship and other kinds of support. And to the extent that our church helps those less fortunate than us, I am willing to give money to it.

  2. Dawkins wrote a nice review of God Is Not Great: http://tls.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,25349-2649121,00.html

  3. If one asks "why is religion so pervasive?" One answer from the biological perspective is that it enhances social relationships among participants, and in doing so improves their health and possibly their reproductive fitness.

    From a 1988 Science paper: Recent scientific work has established both a theoretical basis and strong empirical evidence for a causal impact of social relationships on health. Prospective studies, which control for baseline health status, consistently show increased risk of death among persons with a low quantity, and sometimes low quality, of social relationships. Experimental and quasi-experimental studies of humans and animals also suggest that social isolation is a major risk factor for mortality from widely varying causes.

    It has also been reported that if you are a man, then it seems like being religious isn't connected to being more healthy - or if it is, the effect is quite small. Intrinsic aspects of religion (belief in a god concept, religious/spiritual well-being, religious/spiritual experience, and religious motivation/orientation) have no effect on health. Although organizational activities (such as going to Church) seem to have a big effect, non-organizational activities (prayer, meditation, or sacred book study) do not.

    In other words, there seems to be a real health effect for women, at least, from participating in group religious activities. According to the analysis, this effect holds even after you control for happiness, strength of social networks, and unhealthy behavior.

    This makes me wonder about the effects of online social networking, including blogging, on health. From what I gather, people are spending a lot of time doing it and they have a lot of control over the negative aspects of the relationships. It might turn out to be a very good thing for people.